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California and the West

Day-Care Study Notes Struggles With Staffing

Children: Researchers say centers are losing teachers and replacing them with less-qualified people, and pay remains low.


Child-care centers are losing well-educated teachers and administrators and hiring less qualified replacements, according to a study being released today.

The California-based study also reports that salaries for child-care teachers, which average about $24,600 a year, have fallen in the last six years when adjusted for inflation.

"The child-care work force is very unstable," said Marcy Whitebrook, a researcher at UC Berkeley who conducted the study. "It creates a climate of chaos."

Although the study was conducted over six years in three Northern California counties--Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo--its conclusions point to difficulties facing child-care centers nationwide, Whitebrook said.

"The problem we address here is probably more severe in [other] areas where quality child care is not as available," she said. "It's rampant."

The findings follow a recently released nationwide study that concluded that the more time toddlers spend in child care, the more likely they are to display behavior problems in kindergarten. The implications of those findings are a subject of great debate, even among the researchers themselves.

Whitebrook said that instead of blaming child care, we should work to improve it.

"The issue isn't to make the parents feel guilty for having their children in child care," she said. "How much turnover have these kids experienced? What kind of relationship do they have with their caregivers?"

High rates of turnover and teacher staffing shortages have created detrimental environments for young children because less time is spent teaching and nurturing, and children sense stress, she said.

"Quality makes a difference," she said. "As a nation, we should be doing everything possible to make sure that care is as good as it should be."

Among the study's key findings:

* Just 24% of teaching staff employed in 1996 were still on the job at the centers in 2000.

* More than half of the centers reporting turnover last year had not replaced the staff they lost.

* When teachers and administrators left their jobs, only half continued to work in child care.

* Wages for teaching positions, when adjusted for inflation, decreased 6% for teachers and 2% for assistants over six years.

* New teachers were not as educated as those they replaced, and fewer had degrees in early childhood education.

* Centers that paid higher wages were better able to retain qualified teachers and directors.

Child-care workers are not well compensated because the profession is undervalued, Whitebrook said.

"Female-dominated occupations are still lower paid in our country," she said. Day care "is viewed as quintessentially women's work--taking care of children."

Whitebrook said the findings point to a system that is falling apart.

"The turnover was really getting people down," she said. "When there are vacancies, that means people have to work longer hours. Instead of taking a break or planning their curriculum, they are on the floor with kids."

Diane Johnson, director of City Kids child-care center in Torrance, knows of these problems first-hand. She has been trying to fill one position since December.

"It's been a long haul," she said.

She has put ads in newspapers, visited community college teaching programs and conferences to recruit and offered bonuses to staff members if they find someone--but to no avail.

Part of the problem is the relatively low pay.

"Sometimes they have to get two jobs to make ends meet," she said. "They start to find out right away that this is not a career that you're going to make the bucks [in]."

Emma Smith, director of the ABC Educational Center in Los Angeles, also seconded the study's conclusions.

"It's always difficult to find employees," she said. "It's hard sometimes to find what you want. Because you are working with small children, you want someone caring and soft, but at the same time professional and smart."

Smith doesn't expect pay rates to change, because people who work in child care tend not to do it primarily for the money. Most choose such jobs because they enjoy working with children in a low-stress environment, she said.

"A very educated person is not going to work in this field because the financial reward is not there," she said. "It's not going to be someone who graduated from Berkeley or UCLA."

In addition, educated women are moving into better-paying professions, said Elizabeth Burr, a researcher in early education policy analysis at UC Berkeley.

"A generation ago, options for women were you could either be a teacher or a nurse," she said. "Now, women have many other avenues open to them. But I think it's really too bad, because one of the most important things you can do is contribute to the growth of young children."

Robert O'Conner, who teaches preschool administration classes at the West Valley Occupational Center, said the biggest concern the study raises is the quality of teachers, especially in low-income neighborhoods and areas that have had recent population increases.

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